Publicity surrounding the link to cancer has left US tobacco firms so desperate to recruit new customers they have started giving their products away.
I was “hit up” by one of Chicago’s “cigarette fairies” – a promotional vendor who has routes throughout urban bars and clubs.
“So what brand do you smoke?” she asked. “You seen the British Camel Lights? They call them Blues because some legislation said it was deceptive to call cigarettes ‘light’.”
She scanned my passport and asks me a few vitals – name, number, address and so on.
“Why do you need my phone number?” I asked.
“Something like 2% of the people we hit up get a phone call in the year and they have a chance of winning like a carton or something,” she replied.
Her job is to collect details about smokers (what they smoke, how much and so on) and then give out two packets of Camel-branded cigarettes. For free. Cancer on the cheap.
Their performance rating is gauged on how many cigarettes they manage to hand out… and how many they convert to the cause of administering lung disease to the American population.
“We’re all over the place… all over America. It’s a sweet job,” she told me.
“I’ve got this brand called Crush – there’s a little pellet in the filter you break so you can have a menthol smoke if you want one.
“I’ve also got chewing tobacco that’s been pasteurized so you don’t have to spit it out. You can just swallow what you chew.”
Gross. “Don’t you feel a bit guilty about handing out what is essentially an addictive and unhealthy habit to people?”
“They always have a choice. And usually the choice is to take it up.”
Ever since Chicago’s smoking ban kicked in at the start of the year, cigarette companies like RJ Reynolds have had to play a devious game in order to lure in more nicotine addicts.
From handing out free cigarettes in bars and parties – usually to the hip and trendy types who dictate style – to edible chewing tobacco (“there are different strengths and flavours depending on your taste”) Camel and other cigarette brands are frantically and aggressively marketing their wares in increasingly innovative and arguably reckless ways.
There are “gift packs” that include your two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, a mint-flavoured sweet, a condom, and a moist towelette.
Having been previously exposed to chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and ones with designer packs that indicate my level of “cool”, I’ve known the dark arts of cigarette marketing.
They got me hooked at the age of 14. I’m one of those smokers who say they should quit because it’s socially acceptable to do so but never follow through because that inner teenager fears being shunned by my peers (the umbilical cord of carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding).
RJ Reynolds, the company that oversees the Camel brand, advertise for “highly motivated and principled university graduates with strong communication skills who can build win-win relationships”.
The ideal candidate will become a “passionate tobacco expert” and a “valuable business consultant”. Essential skills include “a willingness to take responsibility, honesty, integrity (and) trustworthiness”.
RJ Reynolds offer a “comprehensive” health and welfare benefits package, a “generous” annual bonus, and a company car.
As ever, the “free choice” card is played. But the temptation can’t be negated. For the sales rep, a low-effort decently paid job with fringe benefits.
For the punter, two free packs of smokes – a saving of just over £9 – and the glee of getting something for nothing (apart from handing over your personal details).
You save a bit of money and you may get a phone call somewhere down the line.
In exchange, you hand over your personal details to a major corporation with the power to lobby governments.
So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 October 2008. All rights reserved.